Founder of the First Permanent Institute for the Deaf in North America
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 10,1787, the eldest son of Peter Wallace Gallaudet (1756-1843) and Jane (Hopkins) Gallaudet (1766-1818). He was named after his grandfather, Thomas Gallaudet (1724-1787). His parents moved to Hartford, Connecticut, before 1800 as Peter Gallaudet was enumerated with his large family in the 1800 census of Hartford.
In 1802, Thomas Gallaudet entered Yale College as a sophomore and graduated in 1805 with high honors, earning his bachelor’s degree. Then, he earned his master’s degree at Yale in 1808. He tried and engaged in different avenues as to what to do with his life, such as studying law, trade, and theology. At one time, he rode on his dappled mare as a salesman, selling goods in Kentucky and Ohio, over roads that had been marked on maps in his canvas sacks. In 1814, he graduated from Andover Theological Seminary after two years of study, and was offered pastorates, but declined them due to his health issues.
On May 25, 1814, his life forever changed when Thomas first met Alice Cogswell, a deaf girl whose father, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, was about to establish a particular school for children like his daughter. Being very interested in the project to formalize this kind of new education in America, Thomas Gallaudet went to Europe in 1815 to study established systems of symbolic instruction. While in England, he investigated the Braidwoods method used in London and Edinburgh, but the Braidwoods were unwilling to share the knowledge of their oral communication method with him. Thus, he was not satisfied that this oral method produced desirable results.
While in England, he learned of Abbé Sicard and the Institute for deaf-mutes in Paris and went to meet him. There he learned and mastered the advanced teaching techniques; that is, the manual sign and symbolic language. After a length of stay in Paris, Thomas Gallaudet returned to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1816, accompanied by one of Abbé Sicard’s assistants, Laurent Clerc. Laurent was a highly educated graduate of the French Institute for Deaf-Mutes. While on the ship back home, the two men spent their time mastering sign language as well as the English language.
From the Connecticut Legislature, Thomas gained financial support for a school for the deaf and dumb, in spite that it was incorporated. On April 15, 1817, the new school was established and called the “Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction for the Deaf and Dumb Persons.” This name remained until 1821 when it was renamed to “The American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb,” which lasted until 1894. After 1894, the school adopted a new name, “American School for the Deaf” (ASD), which has since remained to present.
With the guidance of Thomas Gallaudet’s direction and his writings, the newly founded school prospered and became successful. By 1830, which was the year he was forced to retire, the school had 140 pupils, which, then, was an astounding number. After his retirement, he spent most of his time writing various books and articles, promoting special education. During that time, he turned down offers of university positions and individual schools throughout the United States. His work has led him to gain worldwide recognition.
Apart from his writings, he found the time to be involved with the insane; that is, he became chaplain to the Hartford Retreat for the Insane in 1838. From the years 1837 to 1844, he volunteered as a chaplain of the Hartford county jail.
At the age of 33, he married Sophia Fowler, who was one of his former deaf students at the Guilford First Congregational Church in Guilford, Connecticut. The original record was written as follows: “Sophia Fowler, of Guilford, married Thomas H. Gallaudet, principal of asylum for deaf-mutes, August 29, 1821”. She was born on March 20, 1798, the daughter of Miner Fowler (1767-1838) and Rachel (Hall) Fowler (1767-1843). In all, the couple had eight children:
Two of the Gallaudet children, Rev. Thomas H. and Edward M., were also involved with the deaf. Thomas was an Episcopalian priest who worked for the deaf, and his younger brother, Edward, went on to found the first college for the deaf in Washington, D.C. in 1864, which later became Gallaudet College in 1894. He was also the first President of the new college, a position he served for 46 years. It was later named Gallaudet University in 1986.
Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet died on September 10, 1851, in his 64th year at Hartford, Connecticut, and was interred in Cedar Hill cemetery (2). Sophia died in Guilford, on May 13, 1877, aged 79 years, and was interred next to her husband. Before his death, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the Western Reserve College of Ohio.
Statue of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Alice Cogswell sculpted by Daniel Chester French at the front of American School the Deaf
Sophia (Fowler) Gallaudet, Photo taken c. 1855
Gallaudet monument at Cedar Hill Cemetery